food sovereignty

World Food Day: Thinking about Food Sovereignty

Today, to mark World Food Day, I am sharing a short clip from my conversation back in May* with Jennifer McConnell, General Manager of Irish Seed Savers, where we speak briefly about the concept of food sovereignty and the role that seed collections like the one at Irish Seed Savers play in food sovereignty.

It is important that we think and talk about Food Sovereignty and get to grips with what it means. It is a concept that has been around for a while but, despite coming more to the fore in recent times, is still far from mainstream or readily understood.

Given the critical point we have now reached, with a food system which is destroying the planet and our health, and giving least benefit to those who produce and consume the food, it is time that we interrogate and change where the control and power lie in the food system; and this is essentially what Food Sovereignty movement is all about.

This is a very quick (and far from in-depth) introduction to the concept, with some links to places where you can find out more or organisations you can support or follow:

What is Food Sovereignty and why is it important?

The term food sovereignty was coined in the 1990s by La Via Campesina, an international movement of peasant farmers, made up of 182 local and national organisations in 82 countries and representing 200 million farmers worldwide (in Ireland the new farmer, grower and land worker organisation Talamh Beo is part of its network).

Food Sovereignty is essentially about people’s right to define their own food and agricultural system, to have control over how their food is produced, distributed, and consumed, and to do this in a way which is ecologically, economically, socially and culturally appropriate. Put simply, it is a bottom up approach to food and agriculture. It focusses on providing a fair livelihood for farmers and growers, and providing wholesome food to citizens, while protecting the environment. It is about moving away from a system of centralised control and commodities agriculture. It is about autonomy, returning the power to the farmers and producers of the food, and to citizens (as opposed to corporations). It’s important because our current food system is not working; it is destroying our planet and our health, and in most cases it is not even providing a decent livelihood to the primary producers of our food.

What’s the difference between Food Security and Food Sovereignty?

So what’s wrong with the term food security and why do we need a different one?  Food security is important; it is defined by the UN as “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life”. But food security is not the same thing as food sovereignty, it does not take account of how food is accessed, what it is (other than that it is safe and meets dietary needs), or how it is produced (and its impact on the planet).

Because the idea of a country being ‘food secure’ means that most people in that country have regular access to safe and nutritious food, it does not take account of things like where that food comes from or the impacts of its production, how much the farmer gets paid, whether that food is what those people want/need to eat.

As Jennifer says in the interview, food sovereignty is “about ensuring we have all the facets of the food cycle covered”.  It means being more autonomous, more adaptable, and more resilient, enabling us to bet respond to shocks like Covid-19 and the many climate shocks that are already happening and yet to come.

Who is promoting and working on Food Sovereignty in Ireland?

For more general information on Food Sovereignty and what is means in the Irish context, check out:

Talamh Beo is a new member led organisation for farmers, growers and land workers promoting food sovereignty.

Food Sovereignty starts right back where our food production begins (and ends) with building healthy soils and with producing seed; the work of Irish Seed Savers is a vital link in the promotion of food sovereignty in Ireland and globally by safeguarding open pollinated seed heritage varieties and making the available to people to grow and save (more on their work and what it means in future excerpts from my interview with Jennifer McConnell). Do support this vital work by becoming a supporter or making a donation if you can.

You? Growing your own food immediately (well not exactly immediately, it takes at least a few weeks!) gives you some control, however small, over your food supply and importantly builds our connection with food and our understanding of its value and the challenges faced by farmers and growers. So if you are growing your own or buying from local producers, you are already contributing to food sovereignty in a practical way. Buying food locally and as directly as possible from the farmer/producer, shortens supply chains, gives a better return to the farmer and puts us in much greater control of where our food comes from and how it is produced.

Organisations supporting us to grow our own food and helping to shorten supply chains and promote local food sourcing, significantly contribute to our food sovereignty. A few of those are:

GIY (Grow It Yourself) Ireland

Irish Seed Savers




*Back in May during lockdown, seeing the impact that Covid-19 was having on food systems and how much it had laid bare things in our food system that are normally hidden, I began recording conversations with people whose role or experience was relevant to what was happening, the impacts and changes caused by Covid-19, and to building a vision of what a better future food system might look like. Then life got in the way and I didn’t continue the planned series of interviews or publish the ones I had recorded. But they are still relevant, and I plan to publish them here, and hopefully to continue to have these conversations. There is no much to share, so much to learn, and I believe people’s lived experience can really help us build a vision for a better future. The idea of for the interviews to be informal, accessible and to hopefully bring together a range of perspectives on lived experiences of the food system and the impact of Covid-19.

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